by Richard "Chip" Peterson, PhD, first draft, June 15, 2010, additions made on July 3, 2010, more on Aug.15,2010

    At present the U.S. seems to be run by a number of people who consider themselves to be among the nation's elite. They often consider themselves to be elite because they have acquired political power, money, or college degrees from "elite" universities. Because they consider themselves to be "elite," they assume they have superior knowledge and abilities relative to the average U.S. citizen. As a result, they feel they have the right or obligation to tell or force  average citizens to lead their lives in a manner that the elite feels is more desirable than people might do if left to their own devices. They try to impose their will upon the average citizen through the political and regulatory process. 

    Two main questions exist. First, why do some people think they have the right to tell others what to do and use government force to make the others comply? Second, why do the vast majority of people often acquiesce to the demands of and ideas of the "elites?"

     Historically, many people considered themselves to be elite because they were royalty or because they held an office in a church or religion and claimed to have the word of their god supporting their views. Royalty had often obtained their positions through the force employed by their ancestors, while religious figures (often related to the secular powers) often obtained or maintained their exalted positions through the powers of persuasion. At the present time, elites in the U.S. seem to base their claims to "elite" status upon their wealth, their power in government, their educational status, or their hereditary traditions (think of the Kennedy's or Rockefellers or Bushes, where their elite status depends upon past family money or past political influence that has allowed them to make and retain important influential contacts and public respect throughout more than one generation). The elites take the attitude that they are superior to the great mass of the people and therefore have the right to tell others what to do. Some believe they have that right because they have more money than others--and thereby consider themselves to be superior. Others believe they have that right because they have positions in government that give them power, or the ability to exert power over others (since "power corrupts"), so they feel that their ability to exercise power justifies their use of their power to tell other, presumably inferior or subordinate  citizens, what to do. Still others feel that they have an "elite" education consisting of a degree from an expensive "elite" college, often a law degree or an advanced degree, or a degree from or  association with an "elite" university that proves they are smarter than the average citizen and therefore have the right to tell the average citizen what to do. Still others, such as the media, are highly articulate, and therefore feel  that they have the right to tell others what to do since they have powers of persuasion to which many people are willing to acquiesce. Elite university degrees may not confer more knowledge upon their students than other universities but they ration access to those that are wealthy and allow them to form valuable networks with other "elite" members' children. Thus, graduates of such universities often have valuable contacts that will help them later in life and feel superior because they are more likely to do well later. As Ann Richards, former Texas Governor, said about George W. Bush in his Governor's race, "He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple." Information released during political campaigns suggest that George W. Bush did not cover himself with glory at Yale, but Senator John Kerry, his Democratic opponent for President did even worse his freshman year. However, both belonged to the influential "Skull and Bones" club at Yale and those club members have held or run for a great number of impressive jobs in the U.S. over the years. Similarly, when supporters of Vice President Al Gore tried to claim that George W. Bush had not done particularly well (above average but not by a lot) on his SAT college entry tests, it turned out that Al Gore had made similar scores. Yet, because both had elite college degrees, both had the confidence and contacts that allowed them to contend for the U.S. Presidency.

    In my experience and those of my children who have degrees from, have conducted research at, or have taught at "elite" universities, it does not appear that graduates of other universities and even people without college degrees, need to kowtow to people with an "elite" education (since my earlier post on "elites vs. individuals"). "Common people" often have a great deal of useful common sense while often people with elite degrees often have little knowledge (i) of practical matters, (ii) of science (since they often do not have to take diverse educational requirements in the elite universities if they don't wish to do so, and many prefer to specialize in areas where they can exploit their verbal skills rather than become familiar with scientific methods and qualifications), and (iii) of the real world in general. For that reason, when I worked in government I reached the conclusion that lawyers, even those with degrees from elite universities, should work in the real profit-seeking world for at least 5 years before they took a job with the government. Unfortunately, too many have not done so, and when they obtain influential positions (even the presidency), they often use their self-confidence that their elite degree allows them to impose their will upon others ( without fear that they may do the wrong thing) to impose draconian regulations that hurt private business or involve the U.S. in questionable foreign ventures. When their regulations and laws do not work as intended because they inappropriately try to manipulate the real world, the  elite don't blame themselves, but, rather try to force compliance by passing new laws or imposing draconian penalties (even death for those, in Communist countries who are deemed to be "enemies of socialism"). 

    The  second question is why the mass of the people allow themselves to be told what to do by the "elite'" including the media--which often sycophantically proselytizes the views of the elite. I can only conclude that to some extent the "common man" lacks self-confidence--often being told that others know better what is good for them than they know themselves. They may acquiesce because they defer to the elites power, self-confident nature, "superior" education, powers of persuasion, or for some other  reason. It is interesting that pack animals, such as wolves, often defer to their "Alpha" male or female superiors because they fear that they will be beaten down by force if they do not. The same is true of baboons. Studies also show that the subordinate baboons have more stress and lower levels of aggression related chemicals than the group leader. Perhaps something similar applies to the "common man" if he or she suffers enough putdowns or abuses levied upon him or her through the power (often political power) of the "elite," he or she may learn to avoid challenging the elite.

     In addition, sheer intellectual laziness may be involved in making the common man kowtow to the wishes or views of the elite.. While most people can think well if they wish, thinking takes hard work, and many people are not trained to think--and especially to question the dictates of their "superiors'" This could be the byproduct of a socialized school system that wants people to become good worker bees who do what they are told without questioning the views of their superiors. At any rate, people often do not question the views of people in authority, particularly when those views are advanced by "elite" or powerful people and are supported by the media. As a consequence, the elite often finds that it is easy to tell the "common man" what to do and to expect him or her to comply, Those who would be elite, however, first make sure that they can dominate the discourse in the media and the nature of schooling so the common man will be more compliant. 

    The elites'  regulatory efforts may include  relatively trivial mandates, albeit those mandates may result in intrusive and possibly expensive interventions in people's lives.  By banning the sale of fast foods, some people may be forced to forgo eating out. Also, by banning folk medicines not approved by the Federal Drug Administration, people may be forced to buy more expensive drugs manufactured by pharmaceutical companies. 

    More serious interventions in people's lives may occur when the elites get involved in the economic affairs of individuals.. For instance. they may mandate that landlords offer to rent only at low prices, thereby reducing landlords' abilities and incentives to maintain their properties. Or they may mandate that employers pay high minimum wages to their employees--thereby causing them to forego hiring more employees or forcing them to go out of business altogether. Even more disastrously, in their ill-conceived attempt to limit "global warming," present political elites have falsified data, promoted faulty science, and tried to force massive tax increases upon ordinary citizens by limiting or taxing their use of carbon-containing fuels and electricity and goods produced with the help of such materials. 

    The intervention of the elites in ordinary citizens lives could possibly be justified if they were truly as smart and objective as they think they are. However, experience shows they are not. Frequently, people who consider themselves to be among "the best and the brightest" make disastrous mistakes. Financial leaders of major companies contributed greatly to the Great Recession because they didn't fully recognize that they were taking excessive risks. People who told others to consume margarine rather than butter for many years have, in fact, encouraged them to ingest fats (transfats) that are more harmful to them than butter would have been. Politicians frequently pass laws and then are surprised by their unexpected consequences. For, instance, rent controls often  lead to a decrease in affordable housing, etc. 

    Furthermore, because power corrupts people who have it, they may use their power for self-serving ends. A recent report in the Science section of the Economist magazine cited an experimental study of the effect of power upon peoples' behavior. In the experiment, some people were randomly given power over others. Then people with and without power were compared in experiments involving ethics. Those with the presumed power responded in a significantly less ethical manner than those without the power. Seemingly, those with presumed power no longer felt the need to behave as ethically since they assumed that they  possessed special privileges, so they could disregard ordinary ethical restraints upon their behavior. In another recent experiment, also reported in the Science section of the Economist, people were randomly assigned to be environmentally beneficial--I don't recall exactly how but I believe they were told that environmental causes would receive a benefit because they had participated in the study. Interestingly, in the later experiments, the environmental contributors behaved less benevolently than others--seemingly, they felt that they had already contributed to the general welfare and therefore did not need to act benevolently in other ways. In both studies, people acted less admirably either because they had presumed power or because they thought they had done something environmentally advantageous. Many of our present "elites'" either posses political or regulatory power or are ardent environmentalists. Thus, these studies throw doubts upon how admirably such people are motivated when they tell others what to do. 

    Meanwhile, the average citizen is brighter than the elites give them credit for. While a small percentage of people actually are dumb, the vast majority of people know best what is best for them in their own lives and are perfectly capable of making reasonable decisions about how to live their lives most advantageously. 

    When I owned and managed rental properties, I hired independent contractors to help with special situations--most of whom did not have college or even high school degrees--yet they had a great deal of common sense and practical knowledge. Most of them knew much better than I how to generate reasonable cost-effective solutions to problems of a physical nature. They also knew how to live their lives practically and obtain good deals when they shopped. Even though I had advanced college degrees, I recognized that they were quite capable of making good decisions regarding their work and the way they lived their lives. Most had much more common sense in practical matters than most college graduates that I knew. 

 While most people can benefit from having more information,  and an argument can be made that the government can usefully provide valuable information to people, it should be up to individuals  regarding how they use available information. While fast food may contain too much salt and fat for idle citizens, for someone  who does physical work and perspires a lot, the food may be beneficial, and cheaper than other alternatives. If someone tries a folk remedy, they may full well know that the remedy may or may not be effective, but, it will be less costly than prescription dugs that also may not always be effective.  If someone is willing to work for less than the minimum wage in order to gain job experience, it may be better for that person to do so than to remain unemployed. If a landlord can charge a higher rent, he will have more incentive to maintain his properties and may even acquire more properties which, through the force of competition, will tend to hold rents down in the long run. 

    In general, if one has faith that people are perfectly capable for making their own decisions about how to lead their lives, them the role and importance of "elites" who tell them what to do would be greatly diminished. 

    Given that people are generally quite capable of taking care of themselves, one must ask why the activity of the elites has become so pronounced in our current political environment.

    I believe that one reason that the self-anointed elites have influence is because they tend to be verbally skilled, even if their logic is sometimes lacking. Members of the media are verbally skilled, even if they may have absent or deficient science backgrounds. Entrants into elite universities have to do well on tests involving verbal skills. National Merit scholarship finalists are selected with tests that double weight a student's verbal scores relative to their mathematics scores. Politicians, who are often lawyers, are drawn from a pool of people skilled in argument and verbal persuasion, even if they may not have had much scientific or mathematical training.  Because they are capable of persuading other people, the verbally skilled often consider themselves to be naturally elite, since they consider themselves qualified to be leaders of others. In addition, people who are rich often give donations to charity or politicians, or host fancy parties,  and receive favorable press citations and political favors in return. Rich people can also spend large amounts on advertising, which makes the  media supportive, as well as on provides them with a direct way to influence the public.

    However, when I was teenager full of myself because I did well in school and on standardized tests, my mother made a comment that has resonated with me ever since. She said, "You may think you are smart, but no one is smart who does not have common sense." That comment made me see things in a new light. That is one reason I appreciate the common sense that I have observed in people who do physical work, and also why I am suspicious of "intellectuals" who are verbally adept but seem to have no other skills.

    More recently, I have become disillusioned by our country's main stream media that tends to uncritically parrot positions advanced by the politicians they support, even if those positions make no sense either economically or scientifically. For instance, global warming fears have been fanned by the media and carbon dioxide has been demonized in the process. What the media willingly ignores are the facts that carbon dioxide levels have been much higher in the past and the earth has thrived, in part because carbon dioxide is a plant food and is necessary to all organic life on earth. Useful plants grow faster with more carbon dioxide and useful plants can grow better with longer growing seasons and more arable land. In addition, the evidence supporting the notion that human generated carbon dioxide has a major effect on the earth's climate is not strong, and in some cases may have been falsified. The media also trumpets economically dubious political ideas such as the idea that rent controls will lower rental costs without reducing the quality or availability of rental housing, or that minimum wage requirements can be imposed without reducing the chance for low skilled workers to find work. 

    The media, of course, tends to favor politicians' views in order to insure that they will retain access to them in the future. 




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